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Abortion flap highlights larger issue for GOP

Times Staff Writer

Rudolph W. Giuliani sought Friday to recover from his stumbles on abortion, an effort that underscored the trouble faced by top Republican presidential candidates as they try to remake their images to strengthen appeals to social conservatives.

The weeklong dust-up over Giuliani’s abortion stance has also made what was already an unsettled race for the Republican nomination even more so.

In Giuliani’s case, his rhetorical contortions to play down his support for abortion rights have only heightened attention to the gap between himself and the party’s conservative base.

On Friday, the former New York mayor tried to put the issue behind him with a speech to hundreds of Christian conservatives at Houston Baptist University. He called abortion “morally wrong” but stood by his position that women should have “the right to make that choice.”

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Addressing voters in general, he said, “You have a right to evaluate this in figuring out if you can support me, and at what level you can support me.”

He also urged an assessment of his record on taxes, crime and terrorism -- areas where his views align with those of his party’s mainstream.

For his chief rivals in the Republican race, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the spotlight on Giuliani’s abortion views has offered a chance to erode his lead in national polls of GOP voters.

McCain and Romney are far from sure bets in the race for support from social conservatives, a major force in the primaries. But both have made painstaking efforts to gain their trust, most often by emphasizing their opposition to abortion -- a new position for Romney, who ran as a “pro-choice” candidate in Massachusetts.

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As Giuliani prepared to speak in Houston, fallout from his efforts to blunt resistance to his abortion rights stand continued.

His biggest problem remained his equivocation at a debate of the GOP presidential candidates last week in Southern California, where he said it would be “OK” if Roe vs. Wade -- the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide -- were overturned, and “OK” if it were upheld.

In an editorial Friday, the Wall Street Journal took Giuliani and his conservative critics to task for stirring anew an abortion debate that, the article asserted, could only harm Republican prospects for retaining the White House in 2008.

“An abortion fight will make the party seem irrelevant to the main voter concerns, or captive to its litmus test interests,” the editorial said.

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Giuliani’s adversaries have long seen his liberal stands on abortion, gay rights and gun control as key liabilities. On the stump, he rarely mentions those topics unless prodded by questions. But in his Houston speech, he broached all three in his bid to ultimately return his campaign’s focus to terrorism.

He said he backed gay rights but not same-sex mariage. On gun control, he defended New York laws that limit weapon possession as having helped cut crime, but added that he believed in “the personal right to bear arms.”

In a sign of criticism he can continue to expect, Pat Buchanan, who crusaded for socially conservative causes in three unsuccessful presidential bids, argued in a syndicated column Friday that Giuliani was ill-suited to “lead the family-values party into battle.”

Mocking Giuliani’s pledge to name Supreme Court justices in the conservative mold of Antonin Scalia, Buchanan wrote: “Rudy’s pro-choice, pro-Scalia stance seems intellectually incoherent and politically inexplicable.”

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Romney, whose rightward shift on social issues shortly before he launched his presidential campaign has been greeted skeptically by some conservatives, has been most explicit this week in trying to advance amid Giuliani’s turmoil. Speaking Thursday night at an antiabortion group’s dinner in Massachusetts, Romney highlighted his conversion on abortion and his opposition to stem cell research.

“Human life has a profound dignity, undiminished by age or infirmity. And so I publicly acknowledged my error, and joined with you to promote the sanctity of human life,” he said at a dinner sponsored by Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

On the streets outside, a handful of abortion-rights demonstrators marched in flip-flop shoe costumes to dramatize Romney’s reversal on the issue.

McCain, whose support of stem cell research has fueled his tensions with social conservatives, has also emphasized his opposition to abortion rights. John Weaver, his chief strategist, slammed Giuliani this week for donating $900 to Planned Parenthood in the 1990s.

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With none of the leading Republicans having consolidated social conservatives’ support, it remains to be seen whether that vote will stay splintered, which could benefit Giuliani.

Also unknown: With the Iraq war, terrorism and other issues changing the mix of issues that Republicans see as most important, how big a part will abortion play in the 2008 nomination contest?

“This has been a critical issue -- probably the top social issue of modern times,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “It could be that we’ve gotten to the point where other issues are dwarfing it. But it could be that this will be an issue that will give Giuliani significant trouble.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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